Tea Tree Oil is one of our most popular essential oils, and for good reason. It has an incredible array of scientifically proven applications due to its antimicrobial and anti-inflammatory properties.
As the name suggests, tea tree oil is derived from the leaves of the tea tree (melaleuca alternifolia), a shrub-like tree found in swampy areas of Australia, where it has been used for over a century. The first known use was by the Aborigines of New South Wales—they vaporized and inhaled the crushed tea tree leaves to treat coughs and colds and even applied it to wounds to promote healing (1). While studies as early as the 1920s reported the antimicrobial activity of tea tree oil, it wasn’t until recently that modern medicine caught up, with each new study proving the benefits of tea tree oil.
Tea tree oil’s main claim to fame is in its antimicrobial and anti-inflammatory actions. Antimicrobial is a blanket term for the ability to kill microorganisms. This term can be further broken down by the microorganism the agent is acting against. Because tea tree oil can act against bacteria, viruses and fungi, you’ll also hear it referred to as antibacterial, antiviral and antifungal. Let’s look at each of these microorganism-killing abilities and their applications in your life:
There are endless options for sanitizers on the market, but in addition to their antibacterial properties, many of these products have negative side effects and complex ingredients. Opting for a natural alternative, like tea tree oil, can help you steer clear of unwanted ingredients while still fighting bacteria. Using tea tree oil in your homemade soaps and cleaning solutions can help you stay natural while effectively fighting bacteria.
A simple dilution of tea tree oil, vinegar and water makes a pleasant-smelling, bacteria-fighting countertop cleaner. Simply mix 3-5 drops of tea tree oil into 1 cup of water mixed with 1 cup of vinegar and get to cleaning! For a DIY approach to hand sanitizers, simply dilute tea tree oil with aloe vera gel and some rubbing alcohol to make an effective on-the-go hand sanitizer. At home, you can add a few drops of tea tree oil to homemade soaps for further antibacterial benefits.
If you’re not prepared to jump right into making your own, look for products with tea tree oil as a main ingredient. Studies have shown that cleaning products that contain tea tree oil are more active than those without (2).
Tea tree oil’s pleasant smell combined with its antibacterial effects also make it an excellent candidate for natural oral health. Bacteria associated with bad breath have been scientifically proven to be susceptible to the antibacterial activity of tea tree oil, showing promise for tea tree oil mixtures as natural mouthwashes (3). Further, tea tree oil has been proven successful in reducing Streptococcus mutans, a common bacteria found on your toothbrush (4). Simply soak your toothbrush in a dilution of tea tree oil and water to get the bacteria-fighting benefits.
Tea tree oil also has many clinical applications. As antibiotic-resistant bacterial strains become more and more common, tea tree oil research is increasing for its applications to this epidemic. One of the most common antibiotic resistant bacterias is Staphylococcus aureus, also known as MRSA. MRSA often causes infections in hospitalized patients or those that work in a hospital setting. It is the result of decades of antibiotic overuse and can lead to infections in the bloodstream, lungs, heart, bones and joints. In one of the first studies to evaluate tea tree oil’s effect on MRSA, every one out of 66 bacteria were susceptible to tea tree oil (5).
We have all been a victim of influenza, and whether it’s just a minor irritation or a full blown attack, it’s a virus we all want to avoid. Tea tree oil has been shown to have an inhibitory effect on the influenza virus (6)—stopping the virus from replicating when introduced shortly after infection. Keeping your oil diffuser close by with tea tree oil can help you get through flu season. This is also another area that hand cleaners containing tea tree oil can come in handy. Remember that your first line of defense against viruses like the flu is consistent hand washing.
The antiviral benefits also apply to the common herpes simplex virus. Early treatment of the herpes simplex virus with tea tree oil showed a 98% and 93% reduction in HSV-1 and HSV-2, respectively (7). This shows promise in early treatment of herpes infections.
Fungal infections can affect many parts of the human body, with the feet being a common victim. Onychomycosis, a common toenail infection that can destroy the nail, is becoming more and more common. A double-blind, placebo-controlled study showed that treatments including tea tree oil was effective at curing and preventing recurrence of this disease (8). Further, athlete’s foot, also called tinea pedis, has also been proven to be treatable with tea tree oil (9). Treatments can include directly applying a diluted solution of carrier oil and tea tree oil to the affected area or soaking the affected areas in a similar dilution mixed with water.
Another common location for fungal infection is the mouth. One such infection is called thrush and is often difficult to treat. Many strains have become resistant to the common pharmacological treatment, fluconazole. As a result, researchers have looked to tea tree oil as an alternative. It has demonstrated great promise for its ability to effectively and safely treat this fungal condition (10). As oral intake of tea tree oil can be dangerous, consult a doctor on treating your thrust naturally.
The antifungal benefits extend to the kitchen as well. We’ve all sadly watched our fresh fruit suddenly go bad and grow mold in what seems like the blink of an eye. But there is something you can do about it. Studies have confirmed that the growth of Botrytis cinerea, the mold commonly found on fresh fruit, can be prevented by washing them in a diluted solution of water and tea tree oil.
Tea tree oil has been shown to affect a number of immune responses, reducing overall inflammation and diminishing inflammatory response (11). This act against inflammation makes tea tree oil an effective option to lessen the amount and severity of acne symptoms (12). It has been proven to be more effective than other common treatments in reducing allergic contact dermatitis, a common skin irritation (13). Further, the anti-inflammatory properties of tea tree oil have proven to effectively treat psoriasis, a skin disease characterized by scaly skin (14). To reap the rewards of these anti-inflammatory actions, look for products containing tea tree oil or make your own dilution of carrier oil and tea tree oil and apply to acne and skin irritations. As always, test a small area first to ensure your skin doesn’t react adversely and seek medical advice when necessary.
Another noteworthy action of tea tree oil is in its ability to treat anisakiasis, a parasitic disease caused by worms that attach to the wall of the digestive tract. Commonly, this comes from eating contaminated raw or undercooked seafood. As there is a lack of pharmacological treatments for this disease, researchers have turned to essential oils as a possible noninvasive and cost-effective treatment. One study showed that tea tree oil was able to kill 100% of the larva in just 24 hours. While the mechanism of action is still being studied, this shows promise for the treatment of this common disease (15). This is certainly not a DIY treatment and a doctor should always be involved, but these findings further demonstrate the powerful abilities of tea tree oil.
For decades, natural remedies were approached with hesitation and were deemed less effective than their pharmacological counterparts. As science embraces what ancient medicine has known for centuries, we are seeing evidence that this is not true, and in many cases these natural remedies, like tea tree oil, can be more effective than other treatments. From your diffuser to your refrigerator, tea tree oil has a place in protecting your health. Embrace the natural antimicrobial potential of tea tree oil and see how it can benefit your life.
(1) Carson CF, Hammer KA, Riley TV. Melaleuca alternifolia (Tea Tree) oil: a review of antimicrobial and other medicinal properties. Clin Microbiol Rev. 2006;19(1):50-62.
(2) Effectiveness of hand-cleansing formulations containing tea tree oil assessed ex vivo on human skin and in vivo with volunteers using European standard EN 1499 Messager, S. et al. Journal of Hospital Infection, Volume 59 , Issue 3, 220 - 228
(3) The antimicrobial activity of alpha-bisabolol and tea tree oil against Solobacterium moorei, a Gram-positive bacterium associated with halitosis, Forrer. Archives or Oral Biology, Volume 58, Issue 1, 10-16.
(4) Chandrdas D, Jayakumar HL, Chandra M, Katodia L, Sreedevi A. Evaluation of antimicrobial efficacy of garlic, tea tree oil, cetylpyridinium chloride, chlorhexidine, and ultraviolet sanitizing device in the decontamination of toothbrush. Indian J Dent. 2014;5(4):183-9.
(5) Susceptibility of methicillin-resistant Staphylococcus aureus to the essential oil of Melaleuca alternifolia. Carson CF, et al. J Antimicrob Chemother. 1995 Marc; 35 (3): 421-4.
(6) Activity of Melaleuca alternifolia (tea tree) oil on Influenza virus A/PR/8: Study on the mechanism of action. Garozzo, et al. Antiviral Research, Volume 89, Issue 1, 83-88.
(7) Antiviral activity of Australian tea tree oil and eucalyptus oil against herpes simplex virus in cell culture. Schnitzler, et al. Pharmazie. 2001 Apr; 56 (4): 343-7.
(8) Treatment of toenail onychomycosis with 2% butenafine and 5% Melaleuca alternifolia (tea tree) oil in cream. Syed, et al. Tropical Medicine & International Health, Volume 4, Issue 4, 284-287.
(9) Tea tree oil in the treatment of tinea pedis. Tong, et al. Australas J Dermatol. 1992; 33 (3): 145-9.
(10) Efficacy of melaleuca oral solution for the treatment of fluconazole refractory oral candidiasis in AIDS patients. Jandourek, et al. AIDS, 1998 Jun 18; 12 (9): 1033-7.
(11)Carson CF, Hammer KA, Riley TV. Melaleuca alternifolia (Tea Tree) oil: a review of antimicrobial and other medicinal properties. Clin Microbiol Rev. 2006;19(1):50-62.
(12) The efficacy of 5% topical tea tree oil gel in mild to moderate acne vulgaris: a randomized, double-blind placebo-controlled study. Enshaieh, et al. Indian J Dermatol Venereol Leprol. 2007 Jan-Feb; 73 (1): 22-5.
(13) Tea tree oil attenuates experimental contact dermatitis. Wallengren. Arch Dermatol Res. 2011 Jul;303(5):333-8. doi: 10.1007/s00403-010-1083-y. Epub 2010 Sep 24.
(14) Tea tree oil as a novel antipsoriasis weapon. Pazyar, et al. Skin Pharmacol Physiol. 2012;25(3):162-3. doi: 10.1159/000337936. Epub 2012 Apr 3.
(15) Gómez-Rincón C, Langa E, Murillo P, Valero MS, Berzosa C, López V. Activity of tea tree (Melaleuca alternifolia) essential oil against L3 larvae of Anisakis simplex. Biomed Res Int. 2014;2014:549510.